Thinking With Our Bodies

Michael Metzger

Get your motor running.

Ever wrestled with a decision or had trouble just plain remembering where you put your car keys?  What do you do?  Some people stop and pray.  That’s good.  Yet a growing body of new research suggests that pacing the floor, gesturing with our hands, and taking your car for a spin might help just as much.1  It seems that people think with their bodies not just their brains.  That’s exactly what an ancient faith tradition teaches.  Why is going for a drive often just as helpful as getting on your knees?  And why don’t we know this?

The term most often used to describe this model of mind is “embodied cognition.”  Children for example are more likely to solve mathematical problems if they are told to gesture with their hands as they think through the problem.  Sounds wonderful, yet embodied cognition “threatens age-old distinctions – not only between brain and body, but between perceiving and thinking, thinking and acting, even between reason and instinct.”2  In other words, it threatens a central Enlightenment assumption.

“Now what’s the Enlightenment again?”  Even though I’ve taught on the Enlightenment for years, my wife Kathy asked me this question after one of my lectures (see the problem?  I had only engaged her brain).  If “Enlightenment” sounds too cerebral to you, that’s exactly right.  It’s a 17th century European philosophy that elevated human reason over religion.  Ravaged by religious wars, Europeans overturned religion as the primary source of knowledge and made reason supreme.  Rene Descartes served as press secretary when he said, “I think, therefore I am.”  The core of our being is our cranium.  Knowledge is a cerebral and heady thing; it doesn’t require doing anything.

Whoa.  Hold the phone.  For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, people believed we learn by our bodies, not just our brains.  The ancient Judeo-Christian tradition pointed to the first two recorded stories of human knowledge.  “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food… she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.  And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”3  Knowledge for Adam and Eve, even the corrupted kind, involved their bodies, not just their brains.

Embodied cognition explains how Adam and Eve first discovered sex.  “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain.”4  This was the original “hands on” learning.  For thousands of years, good Jews and Christians believed the way to know something included doing something – with your hands, arms, legs and feet.  This is why the writer of Hebrews said some people never get to know God and “enter the place of rest.”  He wrote: “Weren’t they the ones that disobeyed him?  We see that those people did not enter the place of rest because they did not have faith.”5  OK, which was it – disobeying or not having faith?  Faith or works?  Brains or body?  Both.  Believing was originally something you did with your body.

In the early church Christians connected bodies and brains to believing, which is why the Apostle Paul wrote: “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”6  Discipline is where we get our word “gymnasium.”  It means to run your guts out.  A sound body was required to produce a sound mind.  In the 4th century Augustine of Hippo advanced this tradition when he wrote credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to know).  Knowing required doing something and doing something required your body, not just your brains.  The human body is an ally or an enemy in education.  But it isn’t neutral.  This led to the bodily disciplines being considered critical – right up until the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment’s fraternal twin was the Protestant Reformation (also born in the 17th century).  As a result, Protestant churches enjoy a “kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment” in treating knowledge just as cerebrally.7  This meant the spiritual disciplines became more of a historical curiosity than a critical component of knowledge.  For example, how many of your friends regularly fast?  We mostly do it to lose weight or “get close to Jesus” (however that works).  A friend of mine says we’ve dumbed down learning to “sing, sit, and listen.”  It’s thinking with our brains, not our body.

My wife Kathy doesn’t like the fact that I drive around with a legal pad on the car seat next to me.  But driving around is how this commentary first came to life.  “It’s a revolutionary idea,” says Shaun Gallagher, the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Central Florida.  “… what’s going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what’s going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment.”  The fact is embodied cognition is not revolutionary; it’s radical.  Radical is “to go back to the root.”  The roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition are grace through embodied cognition.8  Grace is not opposed to effort, only to earning.  It’s thinking with our bodies.  This means prayer and studying the Bible are always necessary but often insufficient.  You might need to also get your motor running and head out on the highway to figure some things out.


1 Drake Bennett, “Don’t Just Stand There, Think: New research suggests that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies,” Boston Globe, January 13, 2008
2 Ibid.
3 Genesis 3:6-7
4 Genesis 4:1
5 Hebrews 3:18-19 (Contemporary English Version)
6 I Timothy 4:17
7 Ibid, p.33
8 C.f. Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you are saved through faith.”  In ancient times, faith equaled embodied cognition, so people are saved by grace through embodied cognition.


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